We look ahead to the finale of this year's women's Six Nations and where the big game at Twickenham might be won or lost.
When the women’s Six Nations was briefly shortened in 2021 with the pandemic at its height, organisers introduced the concept of a ‘finals’ weekend and moved the competition to April.
It went so well that the competition was permanently moved to a new window the year after, and while the finals day had to be scrapped, one important fixture change was maintained – England and France would continue to play on the final weekend of the Championship.
This rid the competition of the ridiculous spectacle of previous years, such as in 2020, when the two best teams played on the opening weekend, effectively rendering the rest of the games a sideshow as a determinant of the overall winner – which seems for the foreseeable to be destined to be either England or France.
Without this change, it is unlikely that crowds would be swelling to Twickenham in such impressive numbers this weekend – 53,000 and counting – with fans knowing that they were always likely to be watching a title decider on the final weekend.
The lack of competition that Wales, Italy, Scotland and Ireland are able to offer this golden duo right now should worry those tasked with generating sponsorship and investment for this competition – it’s hardly appealing to sink money into an event that looks so uncompetitive, but the crowds this year suggest supporters don’t mind one bit.
There’s a record expected for Scotland against Ireland this weekend, while Wales filled Cardiff Arms Park a few weeks ago. Last weekend in Grenoble France actually broke the all-time record for a crowd in the women’s Six Nations with over 18,000 turning out, but it went largely unnoticed such is the achievement of what will happen in west London this weekend.
Thanks to sides scrambling to secure status in the various tiers of World Rugby’s new global competition, the WXV, there is something riding on every match this weekend – welcome news given the trophy will have been lifted before Scotland play Ireland and Italy play Wales on Saturday.
Matches that would effectively have been meaningless, are now meaningful and should be close.
But all eyes will be on the early kick off at Twickenham so let’s take a look at how this game might be won or lost.
Exploring the statistics and performances of both teams suggests this will be close with both sides utterly dominant in most aspects across their wins so far.
There has been much talk of England’s poor goal kicking this tournament – fair enough when you consider that they have the worst goal kicking success rate in the entire Championship at just 49%.
The truth is though that neither side has excelled here.
England have had more kicks at goal than any other team (39) and the positions from where those kicks have been taken from have been relatively difficult.
So while 49% looks poor, Opta’s prediction model (which gives each kick at goal a predicted success rate based on certain factors, such as the player taking the kick, distance and angle of the kick) suggests that based on the kicks England have had, they should have made 50%, so their return is roughly as expected.
Undoubtedly though, a better kicker than Lagi Tuima would have had England much further ahead against Ireland, and if this is tight then that is a problem. It feels likely England may well hand the kicking duties to someone else – perhaps Helena Rowland, Amber Reed or Emma Sing, for this weekend.
France however, have only a marginally better goal kicking return at 53% and according to the same model above they’ve left more points behind them than expected.
In short, neither side will be relishing the thought of this being so tight that it comes down to who can keep their nerve with the ball on the tee, because neither offer any certainty here.
England’s maul remains a huge weapon
England used to be criticised for relying too heavily on their driving maul, but they have scored so many tries this year already that this debate has dissipated.
As a result, it means that it has largely gone under the radar that they have retained this as a massive strength, scoring seven tries directly from mauls across their four games so far – more than all the other sides combined.
France have given it a go – they’ve set up more mauls and made more metres from them than anyone else, but they have yet to score a try from it.
Given all the changes in the England pack, including the absence of several world clas lineout operators, this retained strength is deeply impressive, and if England get within a few metres this weekend, don’t expect the ball to go wide.
The offload is a big weapon for France,
Apart from in their rusty opener against Italy, the French attacking game has been a joy to watch and the offload has been key to their success.
England like to offload too – Sarah Bern and Abby Dow rank in the top five on this score over the Championship – but they are less likely than France to convert those into tries or significant breaks.
France top the stats when it comes to the percentage of successful offloads that lead to a try or a break (36%) and with England down at 16% for the same measure, it nods to a subtle difference in styles to how the teams play.
With the brilliant Gabi Vernier and Jessy Tremouliere both excellent in this respect, England's midfield defence will have to be at its smothering best.
Head to heads could prove pivotal
There are some terrific head to heads this weekend between players among the best in their positions in the world.
On the wing, any combination of England wings - at very least Abby Dow who will start - will relish that they are likely to face the impressive youngster Melissande Llorends and the experienced vet Cyrielle Banet – both classy operators – with all of them light up the big Twickenham pitch in attack. If any one of them gets a chance, they will take it.
Jessy Tremouliere, in her last ever game for France, up against the impressive relative newcomer Holly Aitchison at ten is also a seriously exciting prospect. The kicking battle might be worth the ticket alone.
Both sides also have outstanding backrow talent but if fit and if selected, watching former French captain Gaelle Hermet, who was brilliant last week, try to outdo England captain Marlie Packer will surely be a key factor in who lifts the title.
All Data courtesy of Opta.